University of Southern California: Oral history project collects tales from the Armenian diaspora using a converted food truck

When 97-year-old Marsbed Hablanian was a young man, he spent weeks hiding in a shelter in his hometown of Kiev, in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, trying to keep from being discovered by the Nazi forces attacking and bombing the city. Kiev (now Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital) ultimately fell, and Hablanian and many other Armenians were transported to Germany as forced labor. After the war, they lived at a displaced persons camp before coming to the United States.

Eighty years later, in a 2018 interview with staff of the Institute of Armenian Studies (IAS) at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Hablanian recalled that horrific time, one having eerie parallels with the atrocities occurring during the current Russian invasion of his home country.

Hablanian’s tale is one of the first 100 oral histories collected by IAS for its My Armenian Story program, which gathers stories from Armenians around the world, of all ages, to preserve for future generations and for researchers.

People can either submit their story through the project’s website or tell it in person to one of the institute’s staff members.

For Armenian History Month in April, IAS transformed a former taco truck into a mobile recording studio, taking it around neighborhoods in Southern California and recording interviews with local residents.

“A lot of stories that come up in these interviews have never been shared before, so in a way, we become witnesses to these lives. And by recording it, preserving it and designating it as an archival collection, we become stewards of these stories, which, collectively, become a history of a people,” says IAS archivist Gegham Mughnetsyan.

Mughnetsyan says that because the interviews come from people ages 18 to 97, they cover a wide swath of history and touch on subjects like interracial dating, social unrest, marriage, religion and old (and new) stereotypes about their communities.

IAS Associate Director Silva Sevlian explains that IAS originally started an oral history initiative in 2018, when staff started conducting filmed interviews with community leaders. Then in March 2020, the institute ramped up efforts to get wider participation by creating the My Armenian Story website, which gives users guidelines on how to film an interview and submit the recording from anywhere in the world.

To convince more people to participate, IAS staff contacted Vahe Karapetian, a food truck entrepreneur and IAS donor, about converting a truck into a mobile recording studio and bringing the idea and process of interviewing to the community.

Since April 1, the truck has been to Glendale Central Library, L.A. City Hall and other popular spots.

Looking into the converted food truck where Silva Sevlian interviews an elderly man.
Silva Sevlian, right, interviews a member of L.A.’s Armenian community in the My Armenian Story truck.

Meanwhile, the My Armenian Story website has been garnering interest from people in other countries, Mughnetsyan says. Members of Armenian communities in Lebanon, France, Russia and even Armenia itself have expressed gratitude for the project guidelines and suggested questions.

He notes that stories like Hablanian’s, regarding the invasion of Kyiv in World War II, are important as both testimonials of the past and cautionary tales.

“What Hablanian witnessed, I thought, was from a bygone era, but now I am witnessing the same thing with Russia on live television. So, in a way, these oral histories have influenced my outlook on the world and how I perceive events happening around me, with the eye of somebody who should look at things and remember them for the sake of documenting them, for the sake of being witness to history,” he says.

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